The source material of In a Lonely Place is one of the most well-known pieces of hardboiled mid-century fiction written by a woman (Dorothy B. Hughes). I've never read it. I'm wary of doing so. I saw the film well before I was aware of the book, and it made such a profound, indelible impression on me that I wasn't ever sure I wanted to risk complicating it with other versions of the story.
Bogart is Dixon Steele, a successful Hollywood screenwriter with a bit of a violently checkered past. After he's seen with a coat check girl who turns up murdered, he is suspect number one as her killer - until his alibi appears in the form of lovely, icy neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). His own focus quickly shifts to Laurel, who eventually thaws, and they fall in love. But as the girl's murder continues to go unsolved, the possibility of Dix's involvement in it and the specter of Dix's past violence - which makes startling reappearances from time to time - starts to haunt Laurel, until her doubts overwhelm her. As Dix makes plans for their marriage, she makes plans to leave him. When he finds out, he snaps and attacks her. In the midst of the attack, her telephone rings. The police have found the girl's murderer, and Dix is entirely in the clear. Except now he's proved correct her suspicions about his true nature, and all is lost. He walks out of Laurel's apartment and out into the street, alone again.
Both Bogart and director Nicholas Ray reportedly knew something about the pitfalls of talented, tortured loneliness, and it shows. Dix is, despite his evident problems, not an unsympathetic character. It's really quite heartbreaking to see his chance for happiness fall apart, or more to the point, be actively destroyed by his own lack of self-discipline and awareness. As noir goes, it's literal one. The darkness and danger isn't out there somewhere, threatening to come in, but it's already within, and it can eat you up from the inside. Dix is both villain and victim. Laurel is unfortunately just a victim.
Although that isn't quite true, either. Characterizing her merely as a victim would do her an injustice. Even though she happily turns nursemaid and secretary so that Dix can do the work she believes he's best at, she's also smart and cool and independent. Her back-story is that she walked out on a rich man who doted on her, but she didn't want to marry him. There's something about Gloria Grahame's single arched eyebrow and her level gaze that says she can be persuaded to be nice to you, if you can prove you're worth it. But if you try to push her around, she'll stop you cold. It's believable that Bogart's Steele would be fascinated immediately by that challenge. Beyond that, though, he recognizes a kindred spirit who mistrusts the world and keeps up the wall between it and her. Laurel, however, is in control of her wall. The problem is that neither one fully comprehends the depth of Dix's isolating pain and anger, and his inability to conquer it. Once Laurel begins to, it all begins to unravel.
Dix may be sympathetic, but Laurel is a woman ahead of her time. She catches on quickly that his anger issues are not something she can fix, and that ignoring them would not only make them worse, but put herself in danger. It's really a fairly sophisticated reading of a woman dealing with the typical noir postwar uncertainty about male aggression. And it makes the real-life back-story of director Ray and his wife Grahame separating during the filming, and him requiring her to sign a contract that she do exactly and only as he says during the work day, that much more interesting.
This is my favorite Nick Ray film, my favorite Bogart performance, and one of my favorite films, period. It's well written and beautifully acted, and has so many little touches that make it great. It's also an emotional film noir that cuts to the bone. We should be so lucky to have more like it.